Captain Adam Reynolds admitted it hurt to have played in three consecutive preliminary finals without reaching a grand final but Souths coach Wayne Bennett is confident the club’s premiership window has not closed.
In their 20-16 loss to Penrith, the Rabbitohs were brave but the pre-game loss of centre Campbell Graham with an ankle injury was too much to overcome with James Roberts, Braidon Burns and Latrell Mitchell already sidelined, along with Queensland Origin second-rower Ethan Lowe.
Bennett revealed after the match that Lowe was retiring after rupturing a disc in his neck during the round 10 match against Newcastle and undergoing surgery but Souths will be boosted next season by the signing of Titans forward Jai Arrow and Dragons second-rower Jacob Host.
With Graham out, Bennett was forced to play Cameron Murray on the right edge until left second-rower Bayley Sironen was injured and the NSW Origin lock swapped sides, with Jed Cartwright coming on at centre.
Fullback Corey Allan also switched positions with left winger Alex Johnston after suffering a leg injury in the opening minutes of the second half but still managed to score a 74th-minute try that gave Souths fans in the 30,000 ANZ Stadium crowd hope of snatching a late win.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Rabbitohs
"It's disappointing. We've been in three straight and lost three, so it's never a good feeling losing in these games," Reynolds said.
"It's a challenge in itself to get here and I couldn't be any prouder of the team and the squad. I think we've done a tremendous job. We had a number of players out tonight but no one whinged, we all just got on with it."
Tackle one perfection from Reynolds
Bennett told the players in the dressing room he had been proud of their effort but Penrith’s advantage of having last weekend off while Souths took on Parramatta was too great to overcome.
"That's what you saw in Brisbane last night, that's what you saw here," Bennett said, referring to Melbourne’s 30-10 elimination of Canberra.
"The benefit of the week off is huge. It just gives you fresh legs, enthusiasm, all the things that you need out there because you're just feeling totally different to how you felt the last 20 weeks.
"That's what you saw them do in the first half. It took them about seven or eight minutes before half-time before they came back to our speed."
Trailing 14-6 at half-time, the Rabbitohs appeared to be just holding on after Penrith made three line breaks but only managed to score two tries from kicks – an area Bennett admitted had been his team’s Achilles heel this season.
After scoring 146 points in their previous three matches against Sydney Roosters, Newcastle and Parramatta, they struggled to create opportunities against an impressive Panthers defence.
However, the Rabbitohs found more energy in the second half and five-eighth Cody Walker produced two try assists and five tackle breaks to put his team within striking range.
"We had a great end to the season, there's no doubt about that," Bennett said. "We struggled at the beginning and we struggled when we came back from COVID but each week we got better and we played some of our best football in the last month.
"There's much to look forward to if we handle it properly … I think we're a better team than we were last year and if we can be better again next year it might be enough to get us over the hurdle and put us in a grand final.
"We're not losing anybody that's here tonight. We're getting a couple on top of what we've got and getting the injured players back will help as well."